After a successful event last year, the second annual Vaishnava-Muslim interfaith dialogue was held at the Rockwood Manor retreat center in Washington D.C. on March 6th, on the topic “What Do We Love When We Love Our God?”
Nineteen men and women from the Vaishnava and Muslim faiths, including laypersons as well as Imams and priests, met for the one-day event that ran from 10:00am till 4:00pm. Attendees from the Muslim community included Imam Hendi, Muslim Chaplain at Georgetown University; Imam Sohaib Sultan, Muslim Life Coordinator at Princeton University; Mrs. Uzma Farooq, of the Muslim Women’s Coalition; and Dr. S. Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America.
Among those representing the Vaishnava faith were ISKCON Governing Body Commissioner Ravindra Svarupa Dasa (Dr. William Deadwyler); ISKCON
Communications Director Anuttama Dasa; Dr Ravi Gupta (Radhika Ramana Dasa) of the College of William and Mary; and Graham Schweig of Christopher Newport University.
Representatives from both faiths spoke for half an hour each on the topic What Do We Love When We Love Our God? with in-depth discussion after each one.
First up with his paper on the topic was young Muslim scholar Adam Vogtman.
Remembrance of God in the Islamic tradition, he said, cannot be overstated. For in the Islamic account of our existential plight, it is not our original sin that has brought us into this lower world and imprisoned us. Instead, it is forgetfulness (ghaflah) of, and indifference to, God.
“As Western Vaishnavas, especially in North America, we have the experience of living in a Christian majority country, and we know we have a lot in common with the Christian devotional traditions,” comments Anuttama Dasa. “But from this we can see that we also have a lot in common with the Islamic tradition—we also say that the source of our problems in this world is forgetfulness of God.”
Vogtman also spoke about God’s names, saying: “The names of God are, as it were, so many vantage points whereby a particular quality of God is experienced. These vantage points may also correspond to God’s transcendence, and God’s immanence respectively; these being the names of majesty or wrath, and the names of beauty or mercy. It’s important to note that the names of beauty or mercy are nearer to God than the names of majesty.”
This is also similar to the understanding in Vaishnavism that there are many different names of Krishna, some of which refer to his Aishvarya nature, or majesty, and some of which refer to his Madhurya nature, or beauty and sweet, intimate dealings with his devotees.
Continuing along a similar vein, Vogtman said that in the Islamic tradition “Devotional love of God or his prophet ranges from sober and reverential to ecstatic and fervent love.”
He explained that first comes fear of God, then obeying the law of God, then knowledge of God, and finally ardent love and devotion of God, which is described using the Arabic term “Mahabbah.” Interestingly, this is very close to the Sanskrit word “Maha-bhava,” which refers to a highly advanced stage of ecstatic love.
Some questions and answers, as well as further discussion, followed Vogtman’s talk. Next came the half-hour Vaishnava presentation, made by Dr. Graham Schweig.
A key focus of Schweig’s talk was one of the most attractive features about Krishna in the Vaishnava tradition—that he calls for all the lost souls, and desires them to come back to him.
Quoting his own book on the Bhagavad-gita, “The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song,” Schweig said on the subject: “Bhagavad-gita, which means song of God, does not constitute a song in the literal sense. Rather, this is the song issuing forth from the heart of God, the secret call of divinity for all souls to love Him, to take the journey to Him, to be blissfully united with Him.”
Discussing how we souls could accept this call, Schweig cited the three essential elements of Bhakti: 1) Bhagavat, the Divine beloved; 2) Bhakta, the human beloved; and 3) Bhajan, the love between them.
He also quoted text eighty of the Bhakti Sutra, from his upcoming translation: “The Beloved, upon being lovingly invoked and celebrated through sound, indeed becomes revealed to them, and becomes powerfully presented to the bhaktas, who have offered their hearts.”
At 1:30pm, following questions and answers on Schweig’s presentation, members of the two faiths enjoyed lunch together, catered by the Washington D.C. ISKCON temple.
“Lunch was a chance for more sharing, and a chance to get to know each other on a more personal basis,” says Anuttama. “Afterwards, we had more discussion, as members of both faiths compared notes and tried to understand more about each other. Some of the Muslim participants asked questions about ISKCON and its relationship to the broader Hindu tradition, and wanted to know how many Vaishnavas there are in the world.”
The discussion then moved on to the topic of the soul, where it comes from, and what happens after death. While it is generally understood that Muslims believe in one life only, followed by heaven or hell, the Vaishnavas present found it very interesting to learn that some Islamic mystics have postulated that there may be further scope for life after death in their tradition, if the soul hasn’t yet returned to God.
Another topic discussed was the widespread degeneration in popular culture of both the Muslim and Vaishnava words used to denote love for the Supreme: Ishq and Prema. Today, both words are commonly used in Bollywood movie titles, and in general throughout the secular world to describe material love. The two groups shared empathy for each other in dealing with the challenges of a world where everything has become “dumbed down” and people have lost the ability to understand the nuances of the great ancient spiritual philosophies.
All in all participants found the Dialogue, which wrapped up at 4:00pm, to be a wonderful, enlightening experience—one that would prove to be the framework for more cooperation in the years to come.
“There was a very strong sense of comraderie in the group,” Anuttama says. “Even though some of us had never even met before, there was a real sense of learning from each other, and a sense that we were walking similar paths together. Often we only hear about the geo-political aspects of world religions these days—for instance, it can be hard to separate Tibetan Buddhism from the political situation in Tibet, or Christianity from the politics of George W. Bush, or indeed Islam from the politics of the middle East. But beyond those superficial, external things, all the bonafide spiritual traditions have at their core very transformative messages to share with humanity. And it’s very inspiring to hear the same message echoed in your own faith and in the faith of those you’re sitting and discussing with.”
As far as ISKCON’s specific responsibility for interfaith dialogue goes, Anuttama feels that it is important for ISKCON devotees to be aware that the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition is very broad-minded in its deeply-held belief that Krishna appears at different times and places to reestablish religious principles—and that ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada referred to both Jesus Christ and Mohammed as representatives of God, or Saktyavesa Avatars.
“We have a role to play in trying to defuse some of the religious tension in the world,” says Anuttama. “And we can’t do that without both being convinced of our own spirituality, and experiencing the deep spirituality of others.”
A third Vaishnava-Muslim Dialogue is planned for next spring, on the topic What Do I Do When I Love My God? The discussion will revolve around how loving God impacts Muslims and Vaishnavas in their ordinary daily lives.
“Our hope—particularly at ISKCON Communications—is that devotees in other parts of the world are inspired by this, and decide that they would like to try and develop regular dialogues in their own areas,” Anuttama concludes.
Devotees interested in organizing Interfaith Dialogues in their area can email Anuttama Dasa at firstname.lastname@example.org.